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A Is for American by Jill Lepore
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A Is for American

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A Is for American by Jill Lepore
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Feb 04, 2003 | ISBN 9780375704086

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“Engaging. . . . Deftly evokes a rich and colorful tradition, the American as inventor, unifier, optimist and idealist.” –Newsday

“Remarkable. . . . I read it at one sitting, mesmerized by the scholarship, the erudition and the elegant simplicity of this story of seven consummately noble American lives, each one of them, as Jill Lepore reveals, a pilgrimage in the grand search for a nation-creating linguistic ideal.” –Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman

“Wonderfully engrossing.” –Boston Globe

“Lepore is a terrific storyteller, alert to trenchant details but also able to convey the connections between events, the sweep of an epoch.” –The New York Times Book Review

“This is a book to ponder and re-leaf and return to.” –Times Literary Supplement

“A great read.” –Chicago Tribune

“Eloquent. . . Smart and suggestive. . . Readers will enjoy an intriguing journey filled with many small gems of understanding.” –The New Republic

“Insightful and engaging. . . . Lepore’s handling of [these men’s] distinctive careers gives them the place they deserve in the national consciousness.”–St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Lepore’s fresh work is suggestive of new ways of imagining what unites and divides us, what binds us to this earth.”–Raleigh News & Observer

“Entertaining. . . a charming book about the quirky origins of some influential early American inventions.”–The Washington Times

“Lepore has . . . produced a work of cultural history that is both diverting and informative.” –Book

Author Q&A

A conversation with Jill Lepore, author of A Is for American

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: While researching my first book, The Name of War, I read a good deal about Sequoyah, the illiterate Cherokee silversmith who invented a writing system for his people. I was struck, at the time, by just how similar Sequoyah’s project was to the work of Noah Webster, the spelling book writer and dictionary compiler. Webster advocated "American spelling" to promote American nationalism; Sequoyah invented a syllabary to promote Cherokee nationalism. Why hadn’t historians ever considered Webster and Sequoyah together, I wondered? They were nearly exact contemporaries (they had even died the same year, 1843), and surely their work was related. But no one had considered them together, probably because intellectual
historians don’t usually think about Indians as intellectuals. I decided it was worth a try, that putting Webster and Sequoyah together on the same page would help us understand both men a whole lot better.

Q: How did you decide who else to study?

A: I began with Webster and Sequoyah, and with the question of how early Americans understood the relationship between writing and nationalism. Very quickly I decided I needed to write about the deaf, since Americans first began using a national sign language in the early part of the nineteenth century. Soon I became fascinated by the nineteenth-century fantasy of a "universal language," which led me to William Thornton and also to Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s father. Thinking about Bell and the telephone made me think harder about telegraphy, and Samuel Morse and his code. Finally, I came across Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima through Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who accompanied him on his northern lecture tour. What I found so wonderful, as I looked at this cast of characters, was the kind of insight that can be gained by juxtaposing such unlikely figures. What does it mean to hold up Morse next to Webster, or Gallaudet next to Abd al-Rahman? To me, these juxtapositions were a kind of historical excavation, recovering relationships that had been lost to history.

Q: How do these stories bear on what you call the "paradox of American nationalism"?

A: The United States was founded on a set of professedly universal principles: that all men are created equal, that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. Since Americans, at the time of the nation’s founding, shared little by way of language, religion, or heritage, these principles were essentially all that tied the nation together (and, to a large degree, they’re all that ties us together today). But to found a nation on universal principles is an inherently messy proposition: the nation’s boundaries will always become blurred. All of the men in A is for American wrestle with this problem, in one way or another, using writing as a tool for building national boundaries, or tearing them down.

Q: What are the implications of an "American language"?

A: When Noah Webster coined the term, an "American language," he meant both to emphasize differences that already existed between American and British English, and to invent them. The idea is profoundly nativist, that is, it embraces all things native to this country. Webster’s politics were just as nativist as his ideas about language-he despised immigrants, and, in 1800, he wanted the country to be entirely closed to foreign immigration. Part of Webster’s legacy has been this close association between ideas about language and immigration. In recent decades, so-called "English Firsters," advocates of making English the official national language, and opponents of "Ebonics," "Spanglish," and bilingual education have generally shared Webster’s conservative politics.

Q: Some of the ideas these guys had were surprisingly silly. What were some of the more harebrained?

A: What struck me about all of the men I write about is how passionately they advocated ideas that now seem utterly fanciful: Gallaudet’s notion that all of God’s people naturally know sign language, without needing any instruction; Melville Bell’s idea that the world’s poor could be taught to read, in minutes, using his system of Visible Speech. Harebrained, even silly, to us now, these ideas were, at the very least, plausible in the nineteenth century, and I love trying to come to terms with that Plausibility Gap.

Q: Americans are universally scorned for their lack of historical knowledge. As a successful writer and historian, how would you propose making history more enticing, more relevant to contemporary lives?

A: Most historians consider themselves historians first and writers only incidentally. I think that’s a mistake. If readers don’t read the history historians write, it can’t be only the readers’ fault. The last decade has witnessed a tremendous surge in popular interest in American history, largely spurred by developments outside the academy: the rise of heritage tourism, the History Channel, and renewed interest in antiques and genealogy. Historians have got to ride this wave and try to take advantage of Americans’ powerful curiosity about the past by writing compelling essays and books. One way I’ve tried to do this is by founding Common-place (, a web magazine that seeks to bridge the gap between scholarly and popular history. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks–and listens–to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place is a common place for all sorts of people to read about all sorts of things relating to early American life–from architecture to literature, from politics to parlor manners. And it’s a place to find insightful analysis of early American history as it is discussed not only in scholarly literature but also on the evening news; in museums, big and small; in documentary and dramatic films; and in popular culture.

Author Essay

Jill Lepore’s Desktop contains a short essay about the American quest to create a unique language–whether an alphabet, syllabary, or code–and therefore establish a common national bond. View images from the book and click on links to learn more about the history and the present usage of some of the alphabets, syllabaries, and codes discussed in A Is for American.

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